IN this brief note on environmental movements we give a commentary on the environmental movements in India, analyse certain issues thrown up by them and set forth what shall be our approach towards them. First we start with a very brief description of the environmental movements and issues in India.

Some major environmental issues:

(1) The Movement against Big Dams

The most powerful movement on an environmental issue in India so far has been the one against big dams. Two such mega projects, the Tehri dam project-and the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), have witnessed nationwide protests by the environmental groups and a powerful local mass movement against SSP has been going on in Narmada fighting against all odds.

These projects are total disasters looked at from all angles — environmentally they will destroy vast areas of forests, and carry the risk of causing earthquakes; the cost-benefit ratio is very high and the per-hectare cost of irrigation is uneconomical; and above all, they will displace a large number of families.

But the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats have a lots of vested interests in such mega-budget projects: the cost of SSP according to government estimates is Rs. 9000 crores and according to Narmada Bachao Andolan it is Rs.25000 crores. The World Bank's new cost estimate is Rs.34000 crores. Under the present Indian conditions such a huge money would open the flood gates of corruption and with such high stakes very powerful vested interests have rallied behind the opposition to the movement.

The movement against SSP is led by Narmada Bachao Andolan, a movement backed by NGOs and committed to the ‘non-party political process’ at the grassroots. With the involvement of the affected people and large number of intellectuals and environmentalists it has acquired character of an autonomous mass movement and has repeatedly come into the political limelight.

Following a long drawn struggle the government agreed to make a review of the project. Due to protests from the environmentalists the world over, the World Bank appointed a Morse Committee to look into the environmental issues and the question of rehabilitation of the affected people. The Committee came up with a report critical of the project on the basis of which the World Bank withdrew from the project.

The police and the administration are launching systematic repression against the activists of the movement. The movement has entered a complex phase where the limitations of a single-issue movement are glaring. All mainstream parties in Gujarat and Maharashtra have engaged in parallel mobilisation of the people to counter the NBA-led movement. The farming community in the dry areas of Gujarat and other beneficiary states had pinned very high hopes on getting water from SSP and they are being misguided and pitted against the movement. The movement has been unable to effectively counter this political challenge as well as overcome the rift among the people.

The movement against the Silent Valley Project in Kerala was the forerunner to both the movements against Tehri and Narmada. It was a genuinely spontaneous movement with the total involvement of all the intellectuals and science community who carried much convict ion with the people of Kerala including the potential beneficiaries and they were able to successfully stall the project. The present slowdown in SSP work may be more due to the scarcity of funds rather than the opposition to the project.

Because of its extreme position of ‘No Dam’ the movement doesn’t have the necessary flexibility and is unable to carry the popular masses in the benificiary states with it. The alternative proposal by a group of people associated with the movement for reducing the height of the dam and replacing one large dam by a few smaller ones which would bring down the submergence area by half and reduce the cost is a welcome one in this context.

Moreover on the question of dams as well as on many other issues of developmental projects the opposition from the West has a dubious dimension as well which we shouldn't lose sight of. These countries which have industrialised and were primarily responsible for environmental degradation across the globe are highlighting environmental issues in the Third World — which are yet to industrialise — and even calling for a halt to many of development projects here. Hence it is very much necessary to set environmental priorities based on our own perceptions and not to merely echo the western objections.

(2) Movements against Nuclear Reactors:

Till about early ’80s the Indian ruling classes successfully peddled the nuclear projects as great achievements of India’s S&T and symbols of development. The opposition to them was confined to only a handful of environmentalists. But the Chernobyl changed the public perception. Though these projects are white elephants from an economic point of view as the unit cost of nuclear energy is the highest the Indian state went on proliferating projects in the interest of its weapons programme. The environmental and demilitarisation concerns converge in this movement.

The total secrecy that shrouds these projects and the DAE not being accountable even to the parliament heightened the concern about nuclear hazards among larger sections. Even some of those who are not against nuclear reactors in principle joined the opposition. The Narora and Kaiga movements came into the limelight and it was only in the case of Koodangulam project of Tamil Nadu the movement was acquiring the shape of a broad-based movement of the local people, mainly fishermen. We too played a significant role in this movement. Following the collapse of the USSR there was a setback to the DAE’s plan to set up new reactors to be obtained from USSR and hence at present there is a lull in the movement now.

(3) The Chipko Movement

Led by the noted environmental activist Sunderlal Bahuguna this was a mass movement in the ’70s against deforestation, with a large participation of women, directed against the powerful lobby of forest contractors. The mass character of the movement led to the first flowering of environmental consciousness across the country and large number of people concerned about the movement were attracted towards it. Soon the mass movement ebbed and the issue was sustained only by the NGOs. The Appiko and the Save Western Ghat Movements were only pale shadows of Chipko and were purely NGO affairs. Yet the deforestation issues are very much on the agenda in large parts of the country and is directed against the corrupt politician-bureaucrat-forest contractor lobby.

(4) The Baliapal Movement

The movement against the Baliapal Missile Test Range in Orissa was a genuinely militant mass movement where the local people continued their resistance for a few years and the movement was primarily initiated and led by communist revolutionaries. Here again the environmental movement was directed against militarisation. There is potential for a similar movement against a naval base coming up in Karwar.

(5) The Anti-GATT Campaign of the Environmentalists

A currently very live campaign is the opposition to the patenting of life-forms and micro-organisms and Indian plant and seed varieties as demanded by TRIPS under GATT. Linked up with a section of the fanners' movement, this campaign has a strong anti-imperialist and anti-neo-colonial orientation and has rallied a large number of patriotic-minded scientists.

Unfortunately, a tendency to rail against modern science and technology as a whole on the part of some of the leading campaigners and streaks of mysticism and revivalism found in them puts off large sections of the science community from such campaigns. Moreover with their greater inclination towards the NGO audience they have so far not succeeded in reaching out to the science community as a whole. A very positive development is the increasing number of initiatives by the professional bodies of the scientists themselves on such issues autonomous of the NGOs and their inspired theories of obscurantism on modern science and technology.

(6) The Bhopal Movement

The movement against the multinational also had environmental overtones, especially highlighting the problem of industrial pollution. But as a whole the movement against polluting and hazardous industries and industrial projects which are harmful to the environment is rather weak in India despite the fact that anti-capitalist and environmentalist struggles are interwoven in these issues.

Then there is a whole range of issues and movements like the opposition to Japanese-funded township coming up near Bangalore, the Cargill salt plant in Kandla, the movement against tourism in Goa, limestone quarrying in Lower Himalayas and excessive granite quarrying etc. There are also miniscule anti-science and anti-technology groups, groups opposed to green revolution, and appropriate technology groups as well as heritage-protection groups.


The ecology movement is a product of the 70s in the West. Many offsprings of the ’60s student movement, after getting disillusioned with the New Left, found a new cause to champion in the Green movement. In the West, unlike in India, it is not just a movement on certain issues but the Green movement is known primarily for an alternative vision of the society. In its various strands like radical ecology, deep ecology, social ecology, bio-regionalism, new age life-styles movement and eco-feminism etc., the Greens, based on a charmingly Utopian vision criticise the existing society. This advocacy of a new vision of the world sets them apart from the mainstream and 'official' environmentalists.

The devastation of nature and environment by capitalism and the alienation due to the techno-industrial social order have spurred the Green environmentalism. But the Greens are by and large anarchic and they don't know concretely how to get to their Green heaven. Many of them consider modern science and technology and industry as the main culprits and not capitalism or the existing social order. They reject left Vs right divide in politics and the above approach makes it possible for the right and left to coalesce within the Green ambit.

Capitalism has shown remarkable resilience towards the Green movement. Radical environmentalist Yih says : “It seems clear that capitalism can accommodate ecological concerns to some extent, as long as solutions can be commoditised. If people will be satisfied with clean drinking water while river and ground water are polluted, we will be sold bottled water... “While some environmental problems can be ameliorated here and there in the context of capitalism, the ensemble of environmental problems cannot”.

Unlike their counterparts in the West, the environmental groups in India are mainly single-issue movements lacking any such wholesome vision. Despite the attempts by a few to articulate perspectives like eco-feminism and cultural ecology etc., they are unable to come up with a comprehensive Third World ecological vision that can combine poverty and environmental concerns and developmental and ecological perspectives.

Some Indian Greens do talk of an alternative developmental model but for them it is more of an intellectual and theoretical exercise to be worked out more in seminar halls. That is why following popular issues are by and large neglected by the Indian Greens: millions of people having no access to safe drinking water, absence of basic civic amenities and hygiene, industrial pollution affecting mainly the working class suburbs and the question of alternative sources of fuel for the rural masses in place of firewood etc.

Indian Greens, true to their decentralism, are not an organised and integral movement. The great influx of intellectuals into the Green movements here coincided with the retreat of intellectuals from Marxism and revolutionary class struggles in the '80s. These movements are heavily backed by the NGOs and are inspired by the theories of NGO ideologues like non-party political process, grassrootist democracy and autonomous new social movements etc.

At least inane respect many of them have not been able to maintain their ‘autonomy’. There is a heavy traffic between the grassrootist and the governmental environmentalism. The Indian government too has created a large enough space to accommodate environmentalism within the establishment. The high-point was Menaka Gandhi becoming a minister of state for environment. Anil Agarwal, one of the outstanding early crusaders on the environmental issues was assimilated by Rajiv Gandhi. Many lesser Greens and green groups were coopted by the Dept. of Science and Technology. Kamal Nath, the rowdy minister and a Sanjay crony, emerging as the ultimate crusader of the Third World green cause at Rio was nothing strange because there is hard money in it these days.

Our Approach

There is no denying the fact that the environmental groups in India have made a signal contribution in studying various environmental issues and bringing them lo the limelight, creating an environmental awareness, launching some spirited campaigns, and, of late, ma king them mainstream political issues. Let us be frank about it — the original contribution of the organised left in these areas is almost next to nothing. That is why there is a need for a section of our comrades to devise certain forms and ways of taking up such issues, learn from their experiences and to gradually promote a red current within the green movement by developing a Marxist-Leninist approach on this question, starting to take some independent initiatives and giving a genuinely mass character to the movement on such issues. This is an area in which a breakthrough is still pending.

Presently our primary emphasis should be on practical interaction with such groups and not on some abstract polemics. Only over a gradual process we can enable some of these forces to transcend their grassrootist and non-party limitations. The growing influence of our mass struggles and mainstream assertion and the innate strength of the Marxist viewpoint are bound to bring many sincere environmental activists closer to us. Let us be clear a bout a not her thing—we are not out to ‘convert’ these movements. Our main objective in cooperating with them is to forge a united front with them treating them as petty bourgeois movements perse.

Here as well as in the case of defining our relations all other ‘now social movements’ a new theoretical breakthrough is needed. Instead of pitting Marxist vision against their Utopian vision of the society what is more important is to lay down the basis for a strategic cooperation with such movements for the basic social transformation in India. There is a need to arrive at a modus vivendi through suitable ways of interaction and organisational forms for such a strategic cooperation.

The new social movements like feminist and ecological movements have posed some new problems where Marxism needs to be enriched and developed. Hut this doesn't foreclose any debates with them. Many Greens have been accusing Marxism of being green-blind because of its stress on abundance of production and growth. Marxists have been accused of taking an uncritical attitude towards modern science and technology. The colossal devastation of environment is the product of developed capitalism and hence the Greens are themselves the products the latter part of 20th century and it is strange for them to accuse Marx of mid-19th century of not having fully grasped the ecological dimension.

In the first place, the point of departure for Marxism in its critique of capitalism is the divorce of exchange-value from the use-value. It is the mad rush of capitalism for profit through the 'abundant' production of exchange-values which is the source of arbitrary plunder of nature. It is the drive for capitalist accumulation which is responsible for the ravage of environment. Overcoming the divorce between the use-value and exchange-value is what the Marxist praxis is all about. Only this can restore the usefulness of nature collectively for the entire humanity.

Secondly, the philosophical basis of Marxism is incompatible with the reductionism and rationalism of modem science. Even Hegel, the philosophical forerunner of Marx, settled accounts with reductionism and rationalism of science more than hundred and fifty years before the Greens even started posing the problems. Marxists never consider science to be value-free but more than that they don't consider science to be class-neutral, a point which the Greens fail to see. Science is not demonic in itself. It is the bourgeois and the class society which makes it so. Recognising limitations of science need not mean rejecting its positive potential. For instance, every bit of knowledge of the ecologists about environmental problems come from science and a successful overcoming of the environmental challenges is inconceivable without the help of modern science.

Well, these and other debates can go on and they need not come in the way of practical cooperation. Despite different shades in views the Red and the Green can make a colourful rainbow.